2009/09/08

Fighting for a new America

My Zeitgenosse Charles Degelman has just posted a comment on why Obama is having such a hard time pushing health reform: Footprints. I think his main point is right and important:
So I try not to be surprised or disappointed or to blame Obama alone. No! A waste of time. Obama receives no marching orders from The Oligarchy. He is not a pawn in a grand plan or conspiracy. No. He and Congress are – as they have been for a long, long time – part of a desperate attempt by the oligarchies – riddled with greed and stupidity – to save a system that is sliding -- very slowly, inexorably, albeit cruelly -- into oblivion.

I also believe he's right that if the reform fails, the inevitable collapse of our system will likely come sooner than it would otherwise. Though -- after Lehman Bros. and all the rest of it -- essential parts of the structures designed to enrich finance capitalists at the expense of everybody else have already collapsed. In the long run and on the macro scale, what happens to this reform may make little difference -- we are going to have to reconstruct our society on different principles, regardless. On the micro scale and in the shorter run, what happens to millions of American families, it's tremendously important. It's also a tremendously important battleground for deciding the shape of a new system.

But I'm not so sure about some of what Charlie says here. For example, "Capitalism in its imperialist stage (here since WWI), said Marx in 1848, will eventually lead to socialization." I don't find that in the Manifesto. I don't remember Marx talking about "imperialism." I don't think the term was even used as an analytic category in political economics until Hobson (1902), from whom Lenin picked it up 14 years later. Maybe it's in some other text of Marx that I've forgotten?

Also, his description of "blocs" is maybe OK but just as a starting point, rough approximation. The problem I have with that language is that "bloc" implies too much conscious intentionality, even a desire to conspire. It also implies too much internal harmony -- as though the people in each grouping didn't include cutthroat competitors and slavish minions.

As for Lenin's "Imperialism" -- it was useful politically then (1916) and maybe even up to World War II. Thereafter it becomes impossible to explain international conflicts without introducing another, wholly different set of variables, derived mainly from anthropology and psychology (Fanon, for example). Lenin was never particularly sensitive to ethnic issues (Stalin was, of course, perhaps partly because of his own minority origin, and long before either of them, Engels was acutely interested in the subject). Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, southeastern China, Bolivia, Ecuador, Sudan, ex-Yugoslavia and other places have surely been battered by the forces Lenin described, but their responses have been conditioned by ethnic and religious rituals and rage against humiliations that can only be understood within each culture.

Anyway, thanks, Charlie, for provoking these reflections. It's a worthwhile debate. It's about our future. And everybody else: Check out Charles Degelman's story in Above Ground, about how the life of one little boy in a working-class family is touched by the macro politics of the 1950s anti-Communist hysteria and the Rosenbergs' execution.

(On Zeitgenossen, see my earlier note, or better yet, the stories of Heinrich Böll.)

4 comments:

Charles Degelman said...

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on my Marx/Lenin Footprints entry. I'm honored to be considered your Zeitgenosse. Such a concise (Germanic) distillation of the synapses that connect humans such as we: those who create new tribes for a new time and recognize our new tribe members in every possible context and configuration. The joy of discovery... Bruthaaah!!!

And, yes, the observations you make re: Marx and Lenin, their ascribed words, and the larger historical context that surrounds them pushes the discussion forward. My Marx imperialist reference was a lapse. All through my passage on Lenin's "refine[ments]" of Marx's writings on capitalism, I avoided the word "imperialism," simply because it has become a buzzword, not necessary to the argument, and often serves as a limiting code to readers who have been bombarded with the pejorative recontextualizing of words such as imperialism, proletariat, communist, socialist, czar and -- as you say -- bloc.

In retrospect, your reflections on the power bloc metaphor echo my own: If "bloc" does suggest some mechanistic, unified consensus in the oligarchy, it leads us astray. I am NOT fond of conspiracy theories, because they are largely wrong (let alone unproveable) and because they usually assign too much power, control, and competence to these chaotic, often self-predatory alliances. Witness today's usually controlled, disciplined (read "repressed") Republicans battling it out between "blocs" of Republican moderates, conservatives, and nut jobs.

Beyond that, I appreciated you adding the harder-to-quantify but real elements surrounding imperialism vis a vis Franz Fanon. Specifically: As for Lenin's "Imperialism" -- it was useful politically then (1916) and maybe even up to World War II. Thereafter it becomes impossible to explain international conflicts without introducing another, wholly different set of variables, derived mainly from anthropology and psychology (Fanon, for example).

However I wanted to reiterate the overall accuracy of my contention: that Marx and Lenin could -- and did -- "predict" the decline of capitalism because they -- as we are today -- were living in the midst of capitalism's slow-moving but evolution.

My use of the term "glacial" may be a bit suspect in my rant, as well. Glacial implies a ponderous, inexorable, and natural movement. Yes, many economists and social thinkers have argued that the movements we have been discussing are natural but I would like to suggest that even nature can be redirected, often to good effect. The simple facts that this country elected President Obama; that our present broad, unwashed grassroots progressivism needs no long hair or Birkenstocks to move forward; and that there is nothing greater than power of an idea whose time has come...

All bear witness to the fact that we -- including President Obama -- don't have to float helplessly downstream in the wash of historical materialism. And I hope history will smile when I upend your Literature & Society observation: "The revolutionaries have only changed the world. The point, however, is to understand it." and say, "the philosophers can only understand the world. The point, however, is to change it!"

Thanks also, Geoff for your kind words about my short story, "The Crash." I also loved "On a Page from Rilke, your contribution to the Harvard Square Editions anthology. You developed such an intriguing and complex engine for this outwardly simple story: a narrator who gradually and subtly becomes more and more unreliable and -- dangerous! Fantastic!

gef said...

Re: And I hope history will smile when I upend your Literature & Society observation: "The revolutionaries have only changed the world. The point, however, is to understand it." and say, "the philosophers can only understand the world. The point, however, is to change it!"

I'm glad you noticed my inversion of Marx's most famous sentence in "Theses on Feuerbach". The real point is that we have to do both. The danger, more obvious now than in 1845, is that so many have the power to change the world (polluters, bankers, warmongers, even one-time revolutionaries who have lost their cause, like Colombia's FARC) without any awareness of the likely consequences. That's why, for now, I'm more focused on "understanding" than "changing".

Dirk van Nouhuys said...

I think in these Marxist political theory discussions the meat is in the details. Glib generalizations don’t work, but that’s all I have to offer because, although I was briefly in a Marist study group in the 70’s, I don’t really have the command of detail or the patience to do the research to give solid opinions.
But on the level of glib generalization: First, these discussions of what it means today that Marx wrote this or that in the 19th century remind me of Fundamentalist discussions of the bible. Does Enoch 10:9 prove that the last days are upon us or is it superseded by Revelations 11:10? This is not reasoning or analysis of history; this is akin to reading tealeaves or uromancy.
I am often reminded of Asimov’s Foundation series. In that group of novels it’s a given that a super-smart guy has figured out the course of history based on “scientific” principals. He leaves some hologramic speeches to be played on specific dates to reassure his posterity that things are going as predicted. And this works fine for a couple of generations, but one day there is a crisis, and his image duly appears, but it is babbling irrelevant stuff about a crisis that has not occurred. That’s because the actual crisis was precipitated by the existence of a single individual with a single mutant gene.
My second glib generalization is that Marx was a great analyst of the problems of the Western European economic order of his time, but he was weak on solutions. One important reason he was week on solutions is he did not give enough weight to how power corrupts. Partly for that reason Marxism has usually not overcome the cultural inertia of societies that have nominally embraced it. If I look at the history of Russia pre- and post-1917, the style of leadership and government seems to me basically the same, going back to the medieval beginnings of the hegemony of Moscow in that area. Only the leaders were called Party Secretary, not Tsar. Like wise Chinese Marxism is far more Chinese than Marxist. Perhaps Cuba is the only country where Marxism has really changed the culture. I would be interested in your thoughts on that.
Finally I don’t think large economic systems ‘slide into oblivion’. That sort of language has for me the messianic tone. The present crisis was caused greed and recklessness in general, which are always with us, but specifically by certain, widespread abuses in the granting of real-estate loans and their subsequent repackaging and reselling. What does that mean for the long-term character of economic activity? We don’t know. In the US “the system” is vigorously and on the whole effectively struggling to remain unchanged, probably against it’s long-term interest (and the long term interest of we who suffer it), but we don’t know. One thing is certain, systems change. They change in piecemeal, detailed ways. What’s going to happen to global capitalism I sure don’t know and I don’t think anyone else does either, but I expect it will be a piecemeal and detailed process.

gef said...

Dirk writes: "Perhaps Cuba is the only country where Marxism has really changed the culture. I would be interested in your thoughts on that."

It sure looked that way in the early years, when everything was changing and new opportunities were opening for women, rural poor, blacks, and even artists and poets and the leadership claimed to be creating a "new man." Today, after 50 years of rule by M26 and then the reformed Cuban Communist Party, the "new man" looks a lot like the old one, and the only certain change has been greater stability (the same power group in charge) than Cuba had experienced since colonial times. And yes, it is a more egalitarian society than before, the caste system (the colonial term) based on party loyalty more than gender or heredity.